Surviving a cycle with survivors

It was 6am on a chilly Brisbane morning two weeks ago. I looked out at 1370 cyclists and welcomed them to the first “Rio Tinto Ride to Conquer Cancer Cycle”. Each had raised over $2500,(Euro 1750) they were ready to go, most in their yellow cycling gear. But first they had to have a few speeches. They must have welcomed that-not. They knew why they were there. They knew that they faced two days and “over 200 kilometres” of cycling and that the $4.7 million (3.3 million Euro) collected by them and sponsors would make a difference to the research that would be performed by the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) the beneficiary of the cycle. I was on the podium because I am the Director of QIMR . I also was in unfamiliar cycle gear together with re-inforced black lycra shorts because participating seemed to be the right thing to do. Maybe I should have thought more about that a few weeks previous. Maybe I should have bought a bicycle in time to get a little training. The fact was that I had three cycles on the flat, all less than about 20 Km. And a cycle that should have been 40 Km except that I got lost and don’t know how far it was really. Those that I spoke to at work and were in the crowd ready to go, had regularly put 100Km cycles together to build up their stamina. They all welcomed the playing of a rousing national anthem that signalled the start and then they streamed away.
I had to do some media interviews before I could get myself together to get on the road…..I was last away, according to the helpful volunteer at the first road junction. I cycled with the intention to go as far as my body allowed and at a pace that was mine. And so, like Forrest Gump, I just kept going. There were hills. Later in the day when they were too tough I got off and walked. By then I was in the middle of other pools of cyclists and got into the mood of the event. I spoke to some, especially when at the pit stops that turned up welcomingly every 20Km. Most said they were there because of a commitment to a friend, a daughter, a parent that had cancer or had not survived it. Some had a yellow flag flying on their bikes. These were the survivors. They were brave and strong and full of hope. The burden on the researchers to do better could not be more eloquently pleaded for than by their persistence going up hills that I funked. Others rode because it is a sport they enjoyed or because the ride was a motivation to them to get fit. I did not see them as they were too far ahead.
Surprisingly I completed the first day. Also surprisingly it was 120Km and not 100. Not surprising I was in no shape to do day two and my left knee was a new weak spot in my body. It said during the last “extra”20 Km that it was not going to help me do another “100”Km the next day.
Cycling for about 8 hours, (with 4 stops to replenish liquids and take on more energy bars), gives you a lot of time to think. I cycled on my own most of the way as I did not want to delay others and the thought developed that my lack of preparedness was a metaphor for all those that are visited by a cancer. They are not prepared for it nor are they in training when they hear the dreaded words for the first time. But they have no choice but to get on the bike that would bring them to radio or chemo or a new special treatment with all the emotional and physical demands that it makes on them and their families. It takes them to places that they would not wish to learn about. Compared to that, my day cycling in the nice countryside does not count as a challenge. I remember the bravery and stoicism of my mother when I told her what she had suspected. And the fighting spirit and practical ”what do I do next” attitude of a great friend T when I had to point him to the realisation that his “little” problem was not so small. My mother went very quickly and Cancer did not really become a part of my life then. But T is still going strong many years later and through him I have had a sniff of an understanding of how demanding it can become. I thought of them and saw the hills that we faced on the cycle as the set-backs that come to them in the race to overcome the cancer and be a real survivor. And how welcome are the free-wheeling downhill periods when all is going well. The flat parts between the awful and great periods can be even more demanding as they can have a boring but brooding feeling of wondering would they end mixed with the concern about what will be around the next corner.. Yes and some, like me could not keep going. The cycle can end prematurely as they ran into a physical or psychological wall. It happens for too many that face the real life cancer challenge.
We camped overnight beside a Dam. That was an indication that we had a net uphill day in the saddle. Hot showers, real food (not muesli bars), some music and then to the tents. Most seemed buoyed by the fact that they had done something that was hard on the day (and before that when raising money) . Symbolically, the difficulty of the day felt right as it mirrored the difficulties faced by those with cancer. Everybody was in bed by 8…and the guy in the tent next to mine was snoring like a champion almost immediately. And he had stamina, as it lasted all night. I know that because I was not in training for camping either and have been spoiled for years by comfortable beds and warmth. But it was a short night. At 5 before dawn the place was buzzing. We were all friends now; a community that got engaged to do something.
I watched a little sheepishly as they all set off to cycle back to Brisbane. It started to rain. The bus was an escape from that reality; another luxury not available to those with a cancer But at the finishing line, the exuberance of those that came smiling through was a benefit that they got as compensation. They were survivors, And the yellow flags got a double benefit. I hope that they will be back next year. There will be new ones also and that is the sad statistical fact. With an aging population it is projected that 1 in 2 of those in their eighties will succumb to a cancer. More and better research is the only answer. The cycle was a timely reminder of the urgency and need for us in the medical research area to do much better and do it quickly.

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